Fitbit financials tumble but that might not worry Google

Fitbit might not be the profit bonanza it once was, but with sales increasing it offers Google another interface to collect data and launch new services.

Although the financial results do not seem the most attractive at first glance, it is always worth remembering what the new objective of this business is likely to be. Google acquired Fitbit in November, and while the Mountain View residents never say no to money, there is a bigger picture.

Fitbit is most likely about exposure, increasing the number of Google interfaces in society and offering more opportunity for the internet giant to create services. This is where Google’s expertise lies, in software not hardware, but it does occasionally need to encourage the development and adoption of supporting ecosystems to realise its own goals. If more smart devices are being worn by consumers, the greater the opportunity for Google to make money.

“In 2019, we continued to advance our mission of making health accessible to more people around the world by delivering devices, software and services at affordable prices that help improve peoples’ health,” said CEO James Park.

“As a result, we sold 16 million devices and our smartwatch business grew 45% at retail, due to strong demand for Versa 2. Our community of active users increased to nearly 30 million, and Fitbit Health Solutions grew 17%, underscoring the strength of the Fitbit brand.”

2019 2018 Change
Total Revenue 1,434.8 1,512 (5%)
Net Income (120.8) (320.7) (264%)
Devices Sold 16 13.9 15%
Monthly Active Users (MAUs) 29.6 27.6 7%

Figures in millions (US$)

The full year financial measurements are clearly not heading in the right direction, though part of this can be attributed to the average selling price of the devices decreasing 17% to $87. This trend is thanks to the decision to introduce more accessible and affordable devices, increase the range of devices and various promotions or offers.

Perhaps the most important statistic to note here is the number of devices sold over the period. This is up 15% on 2018, while 61% of sales came from completely new customers. For the repeat customers, 54% came from customers who were inactive during a prior period meaning Fitbit is re-engaging those it might have lost as well.

Google might have spent $2.1 billion to acquire the Fitbit business, but it was highly unlikely going to be driven by the direct revenues it would achieve. $1.434 billion is nothing to turn you nose up at, but it is a drop in the ocean if Google can scale wearable devices in the same way it has done to smart speakers.

Prior to the entry of Google and Amazon, the smart speaker segment was sluggish. Adoption was almost non-existent, and interest was even lower. But in introducing their own, more affordable, devices and very cash-intensive advertising campaigns, these two internet giants drove up engagement and sales, whilst also forcing competitors to create their own products.

Looking at the final quarter of 2019, Strategy Analytics estimates that 55 million devices were sold globally, with Google collecting a 24.9% market share. Others are catching-up, but that won’t bother Google.

The more smart devices which are in the world, the more opportunity there is for Google to own the platform which services are build on and through. Android extends the Google influence into the smartphone world, the smart speaker gives it a voice interface in multiple rooms in the home and Wear OS is a version of Google’s Android operating system designed for smartwatches and other wearables.

From here on forward, pay a bit of attention to the financials of Fitbit, but be more interested in the number of devices which are being sold and the number of customers who are signing up to not only Fitbit’s health monitoring services, but also Google’s. This is a new data treasure trove for Google and a further opportunity to monetize digital lifestyles through a new interface.

DT CEO ups US ambitions to double down on momentum

Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hoettges is looking to close the valuation gap between T-Mobile US and its rivals, as the telco revels following a very positive earnings call.

Share price in the German telco has jumped 3.9% in early morning trading following the financial results which saw revenues increase by 6.4% to €80.4 billion for 2019. Net profit was up by almost 80% to €3.9 billion, while free cash grew by 15.9% to €7 billion.

“The market environment in the European telecommunications sector is far from straightforward. Yet, despite the heavy regulation and inconsistent competitive situation, we emerged from the year just ended even stronger,” Hoettges said his letter to the shareholders.

“Not only that, but we are once again the leading European telco, based on both revenue and market value. That was and remains our overarching goal.”

Deutsche Telekom is one of the largest telcos across the world, but in recent years it is questionable as to whether it is one of the more progressive or future proofed. When looking at the penetration of full-fibre broadband or deployment of 5G infrastructure, the numbers are not as favourable, though the tide does seem to be turning.

The team now suggests 5G connectivity is being delivered in eight cities in its domestic German market, with ambitions to increase this to 20 by the end of 2020. Elsewhere, T-Mobile US launched its 5G offering in December and Austria has 31 5G base stations up-and-running.

Deutsche Telekom is heading in the right direction, but it is moving at a much slower pace than other telcos. It might want to proclaim itself as a leader in the telco arena, but realistically it is a fastish-follower at best, BT for example, has already launched 5G in 50 towns and cities across the UK.

One area where the company is proving to be incredibly aggressive is in the US, and this should continue over the coming months.

“We have the chance to become No.1 in the United States, to overtake AT&T and Verizon. That, at least, is our ambition,” Hoettges said during the earnings call.

With T-Mobile US and Sprint now looking at a clear path to the finish line, after a District Judge ruled in favour of the merger in the face of opposition from 13 Attorney Generals, the team can look further into the future. Following the merger, T-Mobile will be roughly the same size from a subscriber base as AT&T and Verizon, allowing more opportunity for the team to compete on a level playing field.

The US business is one which is once again proving to be very profitable for Deutsche Telekom.

T-Mobile US is the single largest business unit in the overarching business, accounting for just over 50% of the total revenues at €40.4 billion, a year-on-year increase of 10.7%. Momentum is clearly with the business also, the team boasted of 1.3 million branded postpaid net additions during its last financial results.

While the US is looking very positive for the telco, it will have to be careful sluggish activity in Europe does not open the door for rivals to steal market share in the various markets.

TIM follows Orange into the finance fracas

Telecom Italia and Spanish bank Santander have entered into a joint venture to offer consumer banking products to Italian customers.

The joint-venture, 51% owned by Santander and 49% Telecom Italia, will start rolling out financial services through TIM’s retail footprint in the coming months, beginning with financing plans for devices and progressing into consumer loans, credit and insurance in the future.

Like Orange in France, it appears TIM has spotted an opportunity to disrupt the traditional banking industry with a digital-native finance service for Italian customers.

Launched in 2017, following the acquisition of Groupama Banque, Orange Bank now has more than 500,000 customers, offering a full range of consumer banking products from current accounts to personal credit and insurance. Part of the success of this venture has been attributed to cross-selling opportunities created through the telcos retail footprint. The team aim to have 5 million customers by 2023.

Although diversification is a key trend in the telecommunications industry, the more drastic ventures have more often than not dwindled into obscurity. However, Orange Bank is the poster child of successful diversification, and it appears TIM wants to get in on the act.

Like Orange, TIM will start with simple financing products. Once the relevant authorisations and licenses have been secured, the team will aim to move into additional products such as credit cards and consumer loans.

Perhaps the most interesting element of this story is the potential for success. Digital banking services are becoming increasingly popular with consumers, especially with digital natives taking over society, though the traditional banking companies have been unable to most appropriately capitalise on the trend. Digital products and applications have been largely cumbersome, opening the door for digitally native alternative to gain traction.

Monzo, Revolut, Starling Bank and Doconomy are examples of companies who have adapted the financial services industry for the digital consumer, though there is still plenty of room for disruption. One thing which Orange has shown is that a trusted brand can be translated into a completely unrelated industry.

TIM is of course in a strong position in the Italian market with 31 million mobile subscribers and 7.5 million broadband customers, offering plenty of opportunity to cross-sell services. For Santander, it certainly offers an interesting opportunity to branch out into a market where it has no consumer presence currently. Should TIM and Santander be able to replicate the success of Orange it would certainly be welcomed by the battered financial spreadsheets at the telco.

Apple takes double hit in China due to coronavirus

Gadget giant Apple has downgraded its quarterly forecast due to greater than expected supply and demand constraints caused by the coronavirus outbreak in China.

Referring to it by its official new name – COVID-19 – Apple said the outbreak has had a double negative effect on its business in China. On the supply side most (if not all) of Apple manufacturing is done in China. Massive manufacturers, such as Foxconn, have had their operations severely limited by the Chinese government as it tries to limit the spread of the disease, which means they haven’t been making stuff. These restrictions have been greater than Apple previously reckoned.

On the demand side, loads of shops have also been closed, meaning sales of iPhones, etc have apparently dropped off a cliff in China. Once more the restrictions to the retail sector seem to have been greater and more prolonged than Apple had anticipated. There were no specific numbers offered in the investor update, but Apple shares fell by 3% on the news.

“Outside of China, customer demand across our product and service categories has been strong to date and in line with our expectations,” said the update. Note there was no comment about Apple’s ability to fulfil that demand, what with Foxconn on a go-slow and all that. Apple famously likes to keep a very lean supply chain so it seems unlikely there’s much redundancy built into it.

Having said that, Apple customers are very loyal and if they have to wait a few weeks for their next fix of silicon loveliness then they probably will. So while Apple’s (and presumably their competitors’) Q1 2020 numbers may take a hit on the coronavirus disruption, they’ll probably compensate the following quarter and we’ll be back to business as usual. Which in Apple’s case means accumulating more money than it knows what to do with.

Merger of T-Mobile US and Sprint finally gets the legal green light

The New York Federal District Court has ruled T-Mobile US and Sprint can finally go ahead and merge if they can still be bothered.

“Today was a huge victory for this merger and now we are finally able to focus on the last steps to get this merger done!,” exclaimed T-Mobile CEO John Legere. “We want to thank the Court for its thorough review of the facts we presented in our case. We’ve said it all along: the New T-Mobile will be a supercharged Un-carrier that is great for consumers and great for competition.

“The broad and deep 5G network that only our combined companies will be able to bring to life is going to change wireless … and beyond. Look out Dumb and Dumber and Big Cable – we are coming for you … and you haven’t seen anything yet!”

“This is a big win and a big day for the New T-Mobile!” exclaimed Mike Sievert, COO of T-Mobile. “Now we can get to work finishing what we set out to do – bringing a new standard for value, speed, coverage, quality and customer service to U.S. consumers everywhere and truly changing wireless for good. Now we’re laser-focused on finishing the few open items that remain but our eye is on the prize: finally bringing this long-awaited merger and all the goodness it will deliver to a close as early as April 1, 2020. We are so ready to bring the New T-Mobile to life!”

“Judge Marrero’s decision validates our view that this merger is in the best interests of the U.S. economy and American consumers,” said a calmer Sprint Executive Chairman Marcelo Claure. “Today brings us a big step closer to creating a combined company that will provide nationwide 5G, lower costs, and a high-performing network that will invigorate competition to the benefit of all mobile wireless and in-home broadband consumers.

With the support of federal regulators and now this Court, we will focus on quickly completing the few remaining necessary steps to close this transaction. I am proud of my Sprint team’s dedication, passion and resilience throughout the merger review process, and we are ready to make the vision of a New T-Mobile a reality.”

Nuff said.

Chinese attendance at MWC will be massively diminished

While the world is holding its breath gaping at the worsening coronavirus crisis, China’s leading telecom companies are already putting alternative plans in place.

Most are still planning to attend Mobile World Congress 2020, though with plenty of precautions. The death toll of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak has risen above 1,000, though the new cases reported have declined, according to the official numbers from China. While the world is getting more nervous, with more companies pulling out the upcoming Mobile World Congress, some of the world’s biggest telecom companies based in China, where the epidemic originated, have rolled out alternative plans to cope with the downturn during the crisis and are looking towards the revival afterwards.

All the companies that are still planning to attend the Barcelona event have told the media that they will follow the precaution measures issued by GSMA. However, Telecoms.com has learned from China-based staff of a few global companies, who had planned to accompany their operator customers to the show, that most of the senior representatives from the Chinese operators have scrapped their travel plans. They have found the two-week self-imposed isolation in Europe not practical.

According to a report by Yicai, a Shanghai-based business publication, IDC has estimated that the total smartphone shipment in China will go down by 40% in the first two months of the year, as a result of the epidemic’s battering on the retail industry. Companies like Xiaomi, OPPO, and Vivo, all on the global smartphone leaderboard, have planned to launch new flagship products at the beginning of the year. They have modified the launch plans, if not changing the dates. Xiaomi, for example, has moved the launch event this week online, through live streaming. Honor, Huawei’s sub-brand, is also going to conduct its first launch of the year online.

A source inside OPPO told Yicai that the staff attending MWC have already arrived in Europe, so that they can self-quarantine for two weeks before the show starts. This is similar to the measures ZTE has announced with regard to its senior staff from China to attend the show in Barcelona. Vivo told Xinhua, one of China’s major official propaganda outlets, that its product launch event in China has been moved to online, but the company is going to appear at MWC and will launch its new products to the global markets as planned.

OPPO believes the coronavirus impact on its manufacturing is manageable, as the company has been making phones in India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Algeria, in addition to the main production base inside China. Vivo, on the other hand, has extended the Chinese New Year break at its manufacturing facilities till 10 February, as did the biggest OEMs Foxcomm and Inventec.

 

Twitter surges back after positive financial results

Three months ago the Twitter share price fell off a cliff thanks to a worrisome earnings call, but bad performance does not necessarily mean a bad company.

The latest financial report demonstrated this. Revenues for the fourth quarter of 2019 were $1.01 billion, an 11% year-on-year increase, while Average monetizable Daily Active Users (mDAU) were 152 million for Q4, compared to 126 million in the same period of 2018.

The third quarter financials could now be viewed as a blot on the landscape as share price shot up 16% during the early hours of trading on Thursday February 6. This is still considerably down on the high of $45.85 in September, but momentum might well shift back in favour of one of Silicon Valley’s earliest successes.

“We reached a new milestone in Q4 with quarterly revenue in excess of $1 billion, reflecting steady progress on revenue product and solid performance across most major geographies, with particular strength in US advertising,” said Ned Segal, Twitter CFO.

“We continue to see tremendous opportunity to get the whole world to use Twitter and provide a more personalized experience across both organic and promoted content, delivering increasing value for both consumers and advertisers.”

Despite being one of the most successful social media companies in terms of adoption, Twitter is one of the Silicon Valley residents who has struggled to make a meaningful impact on the promised fortunes of the digital economy. Over the last 12-18 months, this painful equation has seemingly been balanced, but the Q3 results threw a spanner in the works.

Over the last 12-18 months, Twitter has been sorting out its house. It started offering more comprehensive products for advertisers to target and engage customers, as well as more insightful features on the reporting features. There were some minor glitches to these features during Q3, which impacted results, as did retiring legacy products.

Another factor to consider is what actually happened during 2018. In a sentence, not a lot. This meant AmDAU’s were down during the period, and therefore advertising revenues were also. All of these factors combined resulted in the poor performance during the third quarter, but they were all issues which could be fixed. This is the basis of the turnaround during the fourth quarter.

This is the first quarter the business has exceeded $1 billion in revenue and there could be more to come. With the Olympics in Tokyo, the UEFA European Championships and the US Presidential Election all taking place over the next twelve months, there certainly could be more active users on the platform, therefore more opportunity to advertise and, finally, more revenue for Twitter.

2020 could be a very good year for the company, especially with new video products and a much more comprehensive approach to advertisers.

Fourth quarter Year-on-year Full year Year-on-year
Total revenue $1.01 billion 11% $3.46 billion 14%
Net income $118 million (54%) $1.46 billion 22%
R&D spend $198 million 40% $682 million 23%

Nokia finishes the year on a relative high

Finnish kit vendor Nokia banked a bit more profit than expected in Q4 2019, to finish a tough year on a slightly positive note.

Earnings per share were €0.15, up from €0.13 a year ago, which was apparently what was expected again this time. Nokia seemed pretty pleased with its cashflow too, having significantly topped up its flagging bank balance in the quarter. Shares experienced a minor bump, taking them near the top end of the range they have inhabited since they tanked after a gloomy outlook a quarter ago.

“Nokia’s fourth quarter 2019 results were a strong end to a challenging year. We saw strength in many parts of our business in the quarter, delivered a slightly better operating profit than the same period in 2018, generated solid free cash flow, and increased our net cash balance to EUR 1.7 billion,” said Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri.

“When I look at Nokia’s full-year 2019 performance, we saw good progress in our strategic focus areas of enterprise and software… We recognize, however, that we have faced challenges in Mobile Access and in cash generation. We will have a sharp focus on these two areas over the course of 2020, which we believe to be a year of progressive improvement as the actions we have underway start to deliver results.

“While I believe that 2020 will present its share of challenges, I am confident that we are taking the right steps to deliver progressive improvement over the course of this year and to position us for a stronger 2021.”

Suri’s words were pretty measured and indicated that it’s still mainly in recovery mode this year, so you can see why investors didn’t get too excited. 4G/5G radio market share outside of China is expected to stabilize at 27% over the course of the year and the current count of 5G deal wins is 66. Once more Nokia’s financial situation feels a bit like Ericsson’s a year or two ago, in so much as it’s all about providing a stable foundation for future growth.

World Bank continues mission to make Africa more investable

The World Bank has selected Progressus to head-up the second phase of its ambitious African Regulatory Watch Initiative (RWI).

The African RWI is an interesting and unique project, aiming to tackle some of the more unique challenges faced across the African continent. Despite progress being made in the connectivity field, there are still some very difficult hurdles to overcome to close the digital divide on the continent, as well as place Africa on a level playing field with more developed regions.

The RWI will aim to tackle some of these challenges, such as licensing, spectrum allocation, taxation and tariffs, as well as appropriate regulatory oversight and accountability.

“This is an extremely exciting project,” said Olivier Jacquinot, who heads up RWI at Progressus. “RWI Phase 1 managed to identify some key regulatory levers that pushed forward the development of broadband in some countries. Phase two will deliver an even greater level of analysis – and help keep the African telecoms industry moving forward.”

Despite being managed by the World Bank, the financiers are staying pretty quiet regarding their own drivers and ambitions. That said, it might not be difficult to guess, these are moneymen after all and have some very obvious objectives.

One objective might simply be confidence. Bankers and venture capitalists are always looking for new investments, and the telecommunications industry is proving to be increasingly popular. An initiative which provides an improved and standardised regulatory environment across the continent might well be an important step to providing confidence to invest in the African telecoms and infrastructure industries.

Despite there being great potential for investors on the continent, Africa has several unique challenges. Accessibility, both financial and technological, is a significant one, though an incredibly fragmented and varied regulatory landscape across the continent is an issue.

At AfricaCom in November, MTN CEO Rob Schuter used the acronym CHASE to indicate the major challenges on the continent; Coverage, Handsets, Affordability, Service bundles and Education. Some of these challenges can be addressed through industry initiatives, such as the RWI, though others need much bigger thinking. Making the economics of network deployment or handset accessibility is a significant barrier.

On numerous occasions, more nefarious challenges such as government and regulatory corruption are raised as barriers also. Such rumours will always make investors nervous.

The first phase of the initiative was launched in 2017, and due to the success, the second phase will be launched imminently. 22 regulators have signed up so far, perhaps demonstrating how desperate some of these nations are for external investment; no-one likes being told how to govern or regulate their own sovereign nations after all.

In the second phase, Progressus will introduce the RWI Index. This ranking system will benchmark each of the nations involved in the RWI. The Index will be based on spectrum management, Universal Service Funds management and other Government support measures and regulatory governance.

Africa is a unique continent with some very unique challenges, and this initiative should provide a stable route forward. It isn’t the most revolutionary idea, but there is no need to reinvent the wheel sometimes.

Cloud becomes the golden child as Google reports yet more profit

When looking at the financial results of companies like Google, the question is not whether it has made money, but how much are the bank vaults overflowing.

Financial for the full year demonstrated slightly slowing growth, but few should worry about having to search the sofa for the pennies right now. Over the course of 2019, Google brought in $161.8 million, up 18.3% year-on-year, though it was YouTube and the Google Cloud business units as opposed to the core business which collected the plaudits from the management team.

“Revenues were 2.6 billion for the fourth quarter, up 53% year-over-year, driven by significant growth at GCP and ongoing strong growth and G Suite,” said Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat. “The growth rate of GCP was meaningfully higher than that of cloud overall. GCP growth was led by our infrastructure offerings and our data and analytics platform.”

Company Quarter Revenue (most recent) Year-on-year Growth
Google Cloud $2.6 billion 53%
Microsoft Intelligent Cloud $11.9 billion 27%
Amazon Web Services $9.9 billion 23%

Despite being a business unit which brings in an impressive $10 billion annually, it is impossible not to compare the performance of Google Cloud to AWS and Microsoft Azure. Google is realistically the only rival which can keep pace with the leading pair, though it does appear it is losing pace.

That said, the fortunes of the cloud are only beginning to be realised; this is a marathon not a sprint. Moving forward, the Google team believes strength in AI and software gives it an advantage to provide seamless experiences to users across multiple devices. There is also the blunt force approach to acquiring market share moving forward; Porat highlighted the objective is to triple the size of the cloud sales team.

Over at YouTube, the team is capitalising on the increasingly consumer appetite for video, though also what appears to be a more experimental attitude to subscription. YouTube TV is growing healthily at 2 million, while the core YouTube platform has more than 20 million music and premium paid subscribers.

This is positive momentum, though it will be interesting to see what impact partnerships have on these figures. Google is partnered with Verizon, forming a content option in its bundled products, though rivals are placing a much greater emphasis on these relationships, leaning on an already established link with the consumer, albeit sacrificing some profit in the process.

Perhaps these two business units demonstrate why Google is such an attractive company to investors and potential employees. The core business can do what it does, but Google is always searching for the next big idea. Google Cloud is arguably the most successful graduate of its ‘Moonshot Labs’ initiative, while YouTube is one of the biggest acquisition bargains at $1.65 billion in 2006. It now brings in more than $15 billion annually in ads sales.

During the earnings call, CEO Sundar Pichai pointed to some of the other investments which are absorbing the $26 billion annual R&D budget. Verily and Calico are linking together AI and cloud technologies to improve clinical trials, research, and drug development. Waymo is attempting to scale driverless vehicles in the US. Loon is another Moonshot graduate, endeavouring to stand on its own currently.

Google is one of the most interesting companies around, not only because it is a money-making machine, but the R&D business could produce some gems over the next few years.